12 September 2008

On Honoring Jesus in the Absence of a Clear Leading

Just what is a clear leading? Friends talk about leadings a lot, but how often do we discuss what to do if we can’t tell if they’re genuine? Not often enough, I think. Our Discipline explains where we believe they come from, and what we should do about them: “As within ourselves we become conscious of the Inner Light or the Christ within and submit ourselves to His leadings, we are enabled to live in conformity to the will of our Heavenly Father.” (OYM Discipline 2001, p. 4). A leading, then, is a prompt from Jesus to make a choice in a certain way, to honor him by living our lives in a certain manner. Our Discipline goes on: “Each person must humbly and prayerfully seek individual guidance and follow his understanding of God’s leading. He will be helped by reading the Bible, and especially by pondering the marvelous life and teachings of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (OYM Discipline 2001, p. 5). By correctly responding to the leading we are given an opportunity to honor Jesus by obeying his commandments.

So far, so good. But what do we do about leadings that aren’t clear? In my own experience I have found that the “still, small, voice” of Elijah’s God is often hard for me to distinguish from my own willful plans and desires. Certainly my own inner urgings to engage or withdraw from various actions are often at the heart of my motivations. What do I do then?

When Group Discernment Works

One solution is to seek clearness from our meeting or group. As Friends, we believe that the corporate body can often discern the purposes of God when an individual might not be confident of the leading. This is certainly not always the case--on some occasions an individual is being given a leading in order to redirect the group, and not otherwise. Even so, it is true so often that it should always be tried first. In particular cases, we may request a clearness committee, but joint discernment is routinely used in all decision-making, from allocating budgets to doing business at Yearly Meeting. A group of concerned and receptive Friends, listening carefully in worship and prayerful conversation, may achieve an insight that transcends the original understanding of the Friend with the leading. Jesus signals that the understanding is genuine after a time, when the participants achieve a unity of understanding about the issue, and a clearness that the unity is derived from the Inner Light. Often, a leading will be modified by the process in ways that were not predicted by anybody in advance.

The Fork in the Stream

But here is the difficulty that prompts my question. Sometimes even a group seeking to be led by the Inner Light will not be able to reach clear unity. Sometimes this happens when some Friends involved sincerely believe that the Inner Light is guiding them in a different direction from others in the group. What do we do then? Often, we Conservative Quakers have defaulted toward inactivity, reasoning in our minds that if we cannot corporately discern clearness with respect to a leading, then the correct response is to set it aside until some other time. Sometimes this turns out to have been correct, and a patient waiting for unity will provide a clearer answer later on. But sometimes it isn’t correct, and we use the excuse of waiting for unity as a means of avoiding issues upon which we have divisions. The problem with making any choice reflexively is that taking no action is always an action of another kind--always, in every case. When we reach a fork in the stream, our boat will go one way or the other, like it or not. Choosing to take no action does not prevent us from floating down one or another of the branches, and it constrains our subsequent choices just as effectively as charging down either one on purpose. Reflexively choosing inaction does not honor Jesus, who would have us do His will. “ The man who has received my commands and obeys them--he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father; and I will love him and disclose myself to him.”

"Come Back Later"

Sometimes a continuing lack of clearness is caused by our own failings, where the Inner Light is genuinely trying to shine into us, and our own flawed discernment of it is the cause of a protracted lack of unity within the group. We all know that this happens sometimes, because we are all imperfect, after all. But always responding to a lack of clear unity by choosing inaction ensures that we dishonor Jesus by ignoring His call in every situation where our discernment of the Inner Light was faulty. “Come back some other time,” we say to Him, “We can’t tell if it’s really You today.”

Is this the answer we should return when Jesus attempts to speak to a people who cannot or will not respond? I don’t think so. In my own opinion, an inability to discern corporate unity one way or another on a significant issue is a signal that we are not attending well enough to the urgings of the Inner Light, that we are not allowing ourselves to be led. God is not divided, and a question put to Him will always have an answer, whether we discern it clearly or not. Jesus calls us to mind the Inner Light by continuing to consider until we achieve unity with one another, whether finally shown in going forward, backward, or in standing still.

Looking for Unity

We achieve this unity by waiting upon the Lord together, by prayer, by laboring gently and charitably with one another, and by meditating on the issue alone with our Guide. Sometimes a decision might indeed be postponed, while the Body prepares itself to respond, but if the stop is maintained without continued deliberation, then an active choice has indeed been made. We cannot hold our boat in place above the fork, and not to choose is always to choose. Jesus Himself described this dilemma, when He said, “He who is not for us is against us.” Sometimes we do not discern clear unity to go forward. But if we also do not discern clear unity to stand still, then Jesus has not been honored if we discontinue discussion.

So What Do We Do?

Sometimes when we choose inactivity or put off actively considering a topic we say that we are being careful not to outrun our Guide, to run out ahead of the leading of the Inner Light. We say that we are not led to further activity or consideration. In this way we hope to avoid creaturely activity that is not of Divine origin. But creaturely activity comes in the form of a stop, too, and if Jesus is genuinely beckoning, then our failure to trust in Him and follow is just as disrespectful.

There is no easy answer to this problem, except to say that it has been a concern of Quakers for hundreds of years. In The Rise and Progress of the People Called Quakers, William Penn expressed the dilemma:

Wherefore, brethren, let us be careful neither to out-go our Guide, nor yet loiter behind him; since he that makes haste, may miss his way, and he that stays behind, lose his guide.

The only thing that is clear is that the response to a lack of clearness regarding a leading should be to continue until unity and clearness are achieved. Jesus teaches us that unity is our goal, and our duty is to have faith that we can achieve it, and then to do so. If we do not clearly perceive our leading as a corporate body, whether by uncertainty of the appropriate course, or by significant disagreement about whether unity has been achieved, then we honor Jesus and each other by moving forward in deliberation until unity and clearness is achieved.od’s words become clear.

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